Subscription Streaming: A Measly Billion Dollar Industry

Congratulations subscription music! You are finally a billion-dollar industry. The IFPI, the trade organization for the worldwide recorded music industry, last week reported that subscription streaming music revenues finally broke the billion dollar mark in 2013. Let’s mark this moment. It’s a huge number for the industry and at long last a confirmation of what many of us who have worked on the streaming side have believed in ever since Rhapsody launched as the first legal service in 2003.

While Spotify might be music for everyone, a select few subscribed to a streaming music service in the US.
While Spotify might sell itself music for everyone, only a select few subscribed to a streaming music service in the US in 2013.

Yet with all the congratulatory backslapping and shaking of hands, dark clouds still threaten to limit what subscription music could become. Why? The secrets are revealed in the data, my friends. You see, subscription streaming might be the same product around the world, but the business results have varied. While perhaps not by design, markets are delivering vastly different revenues and subscribers.

The US market is creating a great deal of revenue, but it hasn’t caught on as a mainstream product. Outside of the US the goal seems much less about revenue—it’s about bundling the service with other providers. Additionally rightsholders seem to be much more willing to experiment with other models in the rest of the world rather than the good ol’ US of A.

Negotiation Before Innovation

A product manager for a streaming service spends a lot of time obsessing about what people value. We research of what customers do daily and what causes them open their pocketbooks. Then we craft product concepts that potentially could satisfy those needs. In a past life I had one of those jobs where I would take these ideas and package them up for presentation in front of the labels in order to gain licenses.  You might think ‘oh, you already have a license to a catalog of music, so why do you need anything else.’ Well, every functionality and technical detail must go through a vetting and approval process with labels. And that’s where this gets interesting.

Just for fun, let’s say I’ve just created a service that allows a user play anything from a 20 million song catalog for free on demand while you listen on a laptop. But if you pay $3 a month, we’ll automatically save the top 100 songs you’ve played to your phone. It’s simple: download the app onto your phone and based on what you play on your laptop, we’ll automagically save ’em on your phone. Just for fun, let’s name it something cute like The Roo, as in Kangeroo, because it saves favorite songs in its mobile pouch. My logo is a cuddly ‘Roo wearing headphones and holding a mobile phone.

For the record, I’ve never pitched The Roo to anyone. I just made it up.  But I can imagine the feedback I’d get from the label representatives. The first thing I’d hear is that I’m really pitching a freemium product, which has a different cost to a service than a premium product. After all, there is a cost to giving away a bunch of music as a marketing ploy to attract users. I might also hear that The Roo gives away too much value compared to other products that are already in the marketplace at that price point, like premium radio. And finally I’d probably hear how I’m “giving away” the equivalent of 10 albums a month for $3.

In my tenure I’ve pitched dozens and dozens of these ideas and very few even get past the first round of negotiation. Major labels in particular keep a tight rein on what is in the market by not granting licenses for new ideas. And I don’t think my experience was unique. While trading war stories with colleagues in the industry it’s pretty clear we’ve all had similar meetings.

Trust me, they’re not all good ideas—most of the are probably just as lame-brained as The Roo and deserve not to see the light of day. Yet the approach of startups and rightsholders does shine a light on how each party approaches new products. Most of the startups focus on creating products that will attract the attention of the customer. The best ones work hard on getting those users to pay something, anything, for music. Labels seem to be more focused on protecting current revenues and current products, and seem terrified of upsetting the price floor.

So where does that leave the US market? Only 6.1 million subscribed to a service last year–21 percent of the estimated worldwide 28 million. Meanwhile a whopping 57 percent of all worldwide revenues come from those 6.1 million customers. That works out to $102 per customer, while the rest of the world–$22 a person.

So at least in the US, we are creating a very small subclass of customers who are contributing lots of revenue, but we’re not creating enough consumers of subscription services. We’ve built two tiers of products: free and very expensive. And that’s just not the way people think about music. There are probably hundreds of ideas for paid on-demand products that might find an audience. Instead of licensing tons of them and let the market sort itself out, we only license a couple models and call it a day.

Labels seem to be willing to try other models outside of the US, though. For a £1 a week O2 Tracks lets you listen to any song in the Top 40 on your phone. With Bloom.fm you can download 20, 200 or unlimited number of songs to your phone at varying price points. The United States is the crown jewel of the music business, and the industry treats it as such, at the expense of innovative digital music products.

Music With Plenty of Limits

There are of course many other factors. In the rest of the world, cell phone companies compete much more aggressively with services. Nearly every carrier in Europe has a bundled music service offering from Spotify, Deezer or Napster. The only true bundled offering in the US is MuveMusic, while MetroPCS and AT&T have offerings that are billed on top of the price of the phone service.

The cell carrier duopoly of AT&T and Verizon, who lock up customers in long term contracts, have been less than willing to share the costs of music with startups and labels. That won’t last forever. T-Mobile has declared war against the contract. Perhaps if the company makes a strong move into the market it could spur growth and motivate the entire industry.

Growing Customers

If our goal as an industry is to protect the revenues we have today instead of growing a class of customers who will pay anywhere from $1 up to $20 for different valued package of services, we’ll probably hear the same story for the next several years.

NPD estimates 44 million US customers bought digital music in 2012. If streaming subscription could build up to 20 million paying customers, we might not greatly increase the subscription revenues of today, but we will build a new generation of customers who start to value paid music services, and maybe even become delighted with features that solve their problems. With time, the revenues will follow.

And if anyone wants to invest the $25 million needed to start up The Roo, drop me an email. I’ll start writing the business plan now.

More Growing Concerns

IFPI: Worldwide 2013 Digital Music Report

RIAA: US 2013 Revenue Report

Music Industry Blog: First Take on 2013 Numbers

One thought on “Subscription Streaming: A Measly Billion Dollar Industry

  1. Good blog you’ve got here.. It’s hard to find high quality writing like yours these days.

    I seriously appreciate people like you! Take care!!

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